Four years after a collapse in the salmon population shut down California's salmon fisheries, the prized fish could be ready for a spectacular comeback.
As fishery managers on Thursday approved the longest commercial salmon fishing season in eight years, the industry was buzzing over staggering forecasts for the fall-run Chinook salmon populations from the Klamath and Sacramento rivers, the state's top spawning grounds.
There are 1.65 million adult Chinook in the ocean this year from the Klamath River near the Oregon border, according to a preseason estimate from the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees the salmon fisheries in Washington, Oregon and California. That's nearly three times higher than any previous estimate since the forecasts were first produced in 1985.
The number of Sacramento River salmon is estimated at 819,400, which would be the highest total since 2005, and even that number is conservative -- if the council hadn't tweaked its forecasting method, the estimate would have been just north of 2 million.
"It's about as big of a rebound as we could have hoped for, when you're talking about record or near-record forecasts coming from unprecedented closures," said Chuck Tracy, the council's salmon staff officer. "It's all the way from the bottom to the top in three years."
Fishermen and industry experts attribute the apparent population explosion to favorable ocean conditions and the wet winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11. The deep, surging rivers have enabled more young salmon to survive during their journey to the ocean, where they've feasted on plankton churned to the surface by coastal upwelling.
It's a welcome turn of events for Bay Area salmon fishermen, who suffered through canceled and shortened seasons from 2008 to 2010 before seeing a modest resurgence in 2011. Half Moon Bay fisherman Duncan MacLean, who sits on the council's salmon advisory committee, said he was blown away by the forecasts, though he's seen predictions fall flat before.
"It definitely gives one hope for a good season, but there are no guarantees," MacLean said of the estimates.
More than any mathematical model, he's encouraged by what he saw with his own eyes last year: an ocean teeming with juvenile salmon, fish that will be large enough to catch in 2012.
Even if the season is as robust as the forecasts suggest, Chinook salmon populations are cyclical, and lean years are sure to come. This natural fluctuation is exacerbated by man-made problems. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, salmon contend with pollution from agricultural runoff, loss of stream and wetland habitat and the diversion of water for farming.
"You're sending a little fish 400 miles down a river with no oxygen to breathe, nothing to eat and nowhere to hide and expecting them to survive," MacLean said.
Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco commercial fishermen's association, said salmon will suffer as long as the political battle over California's water rages.
"We need to put controls in place so the fish have enough water even in drier years," Collins said. "We have to live within our means -- or the fish won't be here, and the commercial fishing fleet won't be here, and you won't have local king salmon to put on your barbecue on July 4."
The Pacific Fishery Management Council determined Thursday that the commercial salmon fishing season in the Bay Area will begin May 1 and run through Sept. 30 with a few breaks. The recreational season will begin Saturday and run through at least Oct. 7.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357.
The local commercial salmon season -- from Point Arena in Mendocino County to Big Sur -- will run from:
The recreational salmon season:
Saturday through at least Oct. 7
Preseason and postseason forecasts for ocean abundance of adult Klamath River fall Chinook:
2002: 362,500; 619,422
2003: 310,200; 594,313
2004: 216,300; 281,781
2005: 239,800; 234,912
2006: 110,000; 159,225
2007: 546,200; 413,367
2008: 190,700; 152,269
2009: 505,700; 268,943
2010: 331,500; 257,292
2011: 371,200; 301,235
2012: 1.65 million; ?
Source: Pacific Fishery Management Council
Change in fortune?
Number of Chinook salmon caught by commercial fishermen in California:
2003: 491, 894
2008: (season cancelled)
2009: (season cancelled)
2011: 69, 783
Source: Pacific Fishery Management Council